Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Debt Ceiling Is Unconstitutional?

This week's edition of Time Magazine posed some interesting issues for discussion about the wording of the Constitution. Perhaps nothing was more interesting than a rather simple comment about the national debt, the debt ceiling talks, and the 14th Amendment. Now, it seems the issue is gaining some serious attention. In a few words, according to the 14th Amendment of the Constitution, "The validity of the public debt, as authorized by law ... shall not be questioned."

The Constitutional scholars could - and probably will - analyze this for years. But, the members of Congress better start wrestling with it now. For, if the administration suspects in any way that these debt ceiling talks are putting the country's fiscal integrity at risk, they may decide the conflict necessitates bold action - that is, declaring the debt ceiling unconstitutional, and proceeding to finance the debt without congressional approval. For those who favor a strict interpretation of the Constitution - and yes that means the Tea Party - it is tough to argue that the government should be limited in any way to accumulate and finance existing debt. Period. Thus, in one reading of the Amendment, this debt ceiling discussion is over.

Time posed the idea that the United States defaulting on its debt is, in and of itself, unconstitutional. The Atlantic Monthly argued last month that the entire concept of the debt ceiling is unconstitutional. The Huffington Post has picked up on the story, and provides some interesting historical context - especially the Supreme Court case of Perry vs. the United States in 1935. Then the Court ruled - setting precedent - that Congress does not have the authority to default on the government's debt. Thus, they have no Constitutional choice but to raise the debt ceiling.

The discussion and threats and posturing and hullabaloo about the debt ceiling need to cease. The government needs to pay its bills, and if doing so requires borrowing more money until revenue goes up or spending goes down, the Constitution seems clear. Pay the bills. Eliminate the debt ceiling.

Bobby Flay & Bachelor Degrees

While watching the Food Network's show "Next Food Network Star" this week, I heard Bobby Flay casually make a very interesting comment. In discussing one of the finalists who is a high school dropout, Bobby said, "I stopped going to high school after my freshman year." Hmmmm. Yet another tremendously successful skilled service worker and entrepreneur who did not finish high school ... who did not go to college ... who did not need a bachelor's degree.

The story on Bobby is that he dropped out of high school after his freshman year - or at the age of seventeen, the details are unclear - and went straight to work. He began working in restaurants, supposedly working in a Baskin-Robbins and a pizza parlor. After that rough start, he began working at a restaurant in New York's Theater District, where his dad was a partner. Impressed with Bobby Flay, the owner paid for Bobby's tuition to the French Culinary Institute. From there Bobby began an impressive career in the culinary arts that has led to worldwide success and fame with ten restaurants bearing his name. He also secured a job on the fledgeling Food Network, clearly revealing his skill in front of the camera as well as behind the service counter.

Yet another American success story on a young man who did not fit our traditional education paradigm, but had great promise and success based on skills not measured by ACTs or state tests. I'd like to see more support in schools for people like Bobby Flay.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

The 8:00 Bedtime

Parents today don't value bedtime enough.

The benefits of getting "enough sleep" are indisputable. From health to grades to attitude and general happiness, we need to get a good night sleep. And our children need it as much as anyone. Thus, my wife and I have always committed to consistent and early bedtimes for our children. And that doesn't change just because the sun is setting later or school is out. OK, it changes a little. But for the most part, my elementary age children are in bed by 8:00 with the lights off during the school year - regardless of weekday or weekend. Come summer, we extend the evening a bit, though they are never up past 9:00.

Children benefit from consistent schedules, and meals and bedtimes are probably the most important. Too many children never know exactly when dinner will be on the table, and bedtime is often whenever they decide to go - often that is after the movie is over. Occasionally, kids in the neighborhood will ask why my children come in and go to bed when it is "still light outside." Interestingly, my kids never ask this. Explaining to other kids that healthy bedtimes are linked to the clock, not the sun, really means nothing to them. But, that's no matter. Ultimately, my kids live rather healthy and happy lives, and my wife and I deal with far less drama from our kids than many I know.

OK, lights out.

Friday, June 24, 2011

Experience, Knowledge ... or Not

So, what is it going to be? Do we demand that politicians - especially the President - have experience running a business before they are "qualified" to lead the Executive Branch? I am tiring of the critics who trash a politician with a weak straw man argument by saying, "He's never run a business or hired people, so he's not qualified to be a political leader." Because if that is the case, then Warren G. Harding and Jimmy Carter were great choices as Presidents. Except they weren't. Often critics make loopholes if the candidate has been a governor ... but what about candidates for governor. Do they need to have experience "running a business" or "hiring people" or "creating a payroll"?

Do people need to have personal or business experience with every issue before they are allowed to have an opinion on that issue? Occasionally, when making an argument about taxes and society or unemployment, some annoying and rather obtuse thinkers will ask me, "What experience do you have running a business? How do you know how tax cuts/increases will affect hiring?" And, of course, my answer is knowledge, not experience. If you get asked that question, here are a couple follow-ups:

You're probably not a climate scientist, but I bet you have an opinion on global warming. You're not one of our military leaders, but you have an opinion on how and if to fight a war. You've got no experience in counter-terrorism, but you've got an opinion on how to win the "War on Terror." You're not an economist, but you have an opinion about supply, demand, business cycles, and taxes. You're not a constitutional scholar, but you have an opinion on the document and what it means in American history. You're not a teacher or an administrator or child psychologist, but you have an opinion on how to "fix our schools." You're not a doctor or a nurse, but you've logged on to WebMD and diagnosed yourself. You've never had a weight problem, but you have an opinion on how others should deal with theirs. You're not a lawyer or a judge, but you decide innocence or guilt after watching three minutes of the nightly news.

Few of us are experts in anything, and few have experience with everything. Yet, we can all be informed voters. And obtuse, thickheaded ideologues who disagree really piss me off sometimes.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Privacy versus Anonymity

The Supreme Court is being asked to weigh in on the rights of individuals to be anonymous on the internet - namely when posting critical views. Some companies want the right to identify detractors, and, in many ways defend themselves against libelous but anonymous comments. Critics of the companies claim that identifying the names is an infringement on freedom of speech. I'm not so sure I agree.

The anonymous quality of the internet has always bothered me for a variety of reasons. Everything I post on the internet - every comment I make anywhere in society - has my name and face attached to it. For that reason, I am accountable for what I say. And I never put anything in print that I am embarrassed or reluctant to claim. And I view with suspicion anyone who posts anonymously - or, with ridiculous pseudonyms. I have often considered refusing to post anonymous comments on my blog because I have little respect for someone who will criticize or challenge my public posts, yet refuses to put a name to the comments. It always seems a little cowardly and childish. Of course, I acknowledge the time-honored tradition of anonymous news sources, especially as whistle blowers. But they are not what I am talking about - we can't extend whistle blower, anonymous source protection to everyone who wants to write a negative review of a product on Amazon. Can we? Should we?

One of the biggest mistakes I think Americans make regarding privacy issues is to believe they have a right to be invisible, or a right to not be seen. This weighs heavily in public places like schools, airports, and streets. No one is guaranteed invisibility if they are going to walk down a public street or enter a public building. The right to privacy does not endow invisibility. And, that should probably extend to anonymity. Author Michael Lewis wrote about this years ago in his book Next: The Future Just Happened. In analyzing the unintended results of the rise of the anonymity, he chronicled stories of young people who broke down the walls of the legal profession and Wall Street by using the anonymity of the internet. For example, Jonathon Lebed was the youngest person ever indicted for internet stock fraud after he bought penny stocks and then posted anonymous hype of financial message boards. Lewis explains that his "hype" was believable only because no one knew the financial advice was coming from a teenager with no credentials. Anonymity allowed Lebed to crash the gates of financial advising - and enabled him to generate nearly $900,000 in about fifteen months. Whether that was a positive impact on society, I don't know.

Ultimately, accountability is important. This is especially true in economic situations. Trust is integral to the integrity of a system. And, outside the situation of whistle blowers, anonymity is not a positive quality for American society.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Cut Social Security? Of Course

While it may seem earth-shaking that the AARP has softened its long-held opposition - and congressional lobbying stranglehold - on cuts to Social Security benefits, it shouldn't be. In fact, it's sad that such rigidity ever existed in the first place. Social Security was, is, and always should be a simple safety net to keep retired people/elderly from slipping into poverty. A social insurance system against abject poverty is how it was sold, and how it should be treated. For that reason, cuts are in order, and that should have begun with "means-testing" years ago. Certainly, there could be some incentives against drawing early and often from the fund, and Americans should do all they can to make sure that the government payment is not their primary source of income in retirement. At the same time, it must remain, especially as wages lose ground for the lower classes. It has to be there as a safety net - but it should change.

Friday, June 17, 2011

IKEA Store a Monstrosity

Driving down Interstate-25 to Park Meadows Mall yesterday, enjoying the view of the Rocky Mountains, my mood suddenly shifted to a darker place as the monstrous new IKEA store in Centennial overwhelmed the landscape and blocked my view of the entire West Coast. Though it was heavily courted and promoted as some sort of savior to the local economy, the IKEA "Warehouse" also generated some controversy and opposition from residents who worried about its intrusiveness. The primary concern was about the size of the sign, which is, no doubt, a ridiculously over-sized sign for the area. The store asked for and received an exemption from codes. However, the sign pales in comparison to the blight represented by an enormous blue box of a structure that IKEA calls "a store."

I was already turned off to the arrival of IKEA after news began to surface about IKEA (in America) and its anti-labor practices. In Virginia, IKEA workers have been facing serious opposition to desires for collective bargaining after dealing with dangerous work conditions, discriminatory business practices and low wages. These stories are all the more disturbing considering IKEA's origin in the worker-friendly country and culture of Sweden. Where IKEA's Swedish workers make nearly $20/hour, have excellent benefits (provided by taxes), and five weeks of vacation, American workers are starting at about $8 with no benefits. Certainly, the higher wages and benefits given in Europe didn't prevent IKEA from growing into a strong company. Yet, they clearly had no desire to continue practices that improve society once a cash starved society and government allowed them all the shortcuts.

Certainly, Colorado needs the jobs and the commerce, and everyone hoped IKEA would be a boon to the local economy. But, as I've noted before, there are companies that benefit a society as a whole with a sense of being "stewards of the community" .... and then there are companies like America's version of IKEA.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

GOP Shift on Anti-tax Zealotry

When I saw the tagline GOP Shifting on Anti-tax Ideology run across the bottom of my TV during the 9:00 news, I felt a small shimmer of hope rising in my heart. This, as I've noted, is one of the areas where I simply haven't been able to find common ground with the GOP. And, whenever I talk about the truly pragmatic Republicans like Judd Gregg or Tom Copburn or Lindsay Graham, I am always disappointed by the RINO label from the un-thinking and naive ideologues.

Yet, there may be hope. Perhaps the Grover Norquist wave is fading just a tad. In Colorado the Douglas Bruce anti-tax zealots have been voted down on their most recent referenda on "no tax increases ever" and "gut government till we look like Somalia."

So, yes, there may be hope. Keep watching.

Corporate Responsibility

If the American economy produces more CEOs and business leaders like Whole Foods' John Mackey and Starbucks' Howard Schultz, then there is reason to be hopeful about the future of the American economy. If not, we are in serious trouble.

In his recent book Onward, as well as a series of speeches and public appearances, about his decision to return to the helm as CEO in 2008, Howard Schultz preaches the importance of corporate responsibility to the people they serve. Rather than being only focused on stock prices and growth, Schultz knows business leaders need to be "stewards of their community." For, if the people in the community do not earn a living wage with reasonable benefits and generate disposable income, they will not be able to afford to purchase products from, and even invest in, American companies.

Certainly, companies can search the world for capital, forever chasing new sources of wealth. However, the country would benefit from businesses investing in people, rather than seeking short-term gains. American corporate leaders could learn from German businesses who made controlling unemployment a priority in the recent recession. In response, Germany weathered the downturn and returned to productivity and growth far more quickly and effectively than the rest of world, especially America.

Let's hope American leaders learn.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

History is so ... Past

Some patriotic Americans are, at least for the next day or so, going to be completely outraged over the news that American students' lowest scores on the National Assessment for Education Progress (NAEP) are in history - with fewer than 15% of seniors proficient. Certainly, these numbers are sad, disappointing, even pathetic. But, like all research, the numbers need a bit of qualification and perspective.

I continue to challenge the emphasis of judging our schools and society by arbitrary standardized tests in which the students have no stake - keep in mind that NAEP tests are voluntary, students are asked to miss class to take them, and many students don't even bother to finish. Thus, the top students are often not taking the test - and that may be because, at the high school level, they are busy in their AP Comparative Government, US History, Comparative Government, and European History. These classes are incredibly rigorous, and the numbers of students in them grow each year.

Secondly, history is an incredibly vast subject - especially at the lower levels - where the entire history of the world is covered over the years with great debate over what should be taught. I'd also argue there is a literacy issue, as social studies textbooks are among the most convoluted and poorly written of the content area books. Students are often (way too often) not taught the skills of accessing the knowledge of history, but instead lectured on vast amounts of content which is often out of context for them. And the idea of "history" versus the concepts of "social studies" are at odds for time. Beyond that, few state tests even evaluate social studies, so there is even less incentive for kids to retain the knowledge.

Don't get me wrong - I am truly saddened by the numbers. But I don't see it as the end of American civilization .... or history.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

The High School Experience

Time Magazine features an article this week about how much or how little high school defines us. There are so many facets to this idea, and as we move farther away from those years, it seems we definitely are more likely to view them nostalgically. At the very least, as teachers we can offer some objective perspective for our students who are dealing with these intense years - years that, in my experience as both a student and teacher can represent the highest of highs and the lowest of lows. There is all the hope and optimism in the world, and it's tempered by the angst that seems to ground every song, movie, novel, TV show, and blog entry about the high school experience.

John Hughes virtually created the high school movie genre that still fascinates us. Taylor Swift tells us that being fifteen is "who you are before you know who you are going to be." Dan Savage is reaching out the teens struggling with issues of sexuality - and there is no harder venue in which to struggle with that than high school - with his incredible YouTube campaign "It Gets Better." I regularly counsel my students that regardless of whether it's a great experience, or a bit disappointing, these are not, I hope, "the best years of their lives." They should view with suspicion anyone who tells them that - or at least without some honest qualification. A student wrote years ago in a personal essay about a particularly arduous year for her class that "No one reaches adulthood without a few scars." Wise words.

So, here's a question. Good, bad, or neutral, what is your truest observation about high school?

Monday, June 13, 2011

No Regrets from 2008

When I voted for Barack Obama in 2008, it was the first Democrat I'd voted for in the presidential elections since 1992, and one of the few I'd voted for at the national level. Since then, the economy has been stagnant, an all-out ideological battle has begun over the role and size of government, and the 2012 presidential race is a constant source of speculation. With that in mind, many Obama supporters are asked if they have buyer's remorse. It's a necessary question.

In terms of Obama's performance, I'd put him at about a C. The initial push for health care reform was a mistake, but only because it was an over-reach. The bill is a monstrosity, and it was not a priority for most voters in 2008. On top of that, voters supported and the parties agreed on many components - as much as 80% - of the Affordable Care Act. The first major piece of legislation should have been a much smaller bill that covered common ground. It would have been good for America.

In terms of the economy, the idea of a stimulus bill was a good idea, but it was not focused enough on immediate infrastructure spending and labor that immediately impacts the economy. It was also too heavily geared toward tax rebates that produce no visible or guaranteed effects. The money should not have been about bailing out state deficits, and the Obama Administration has been rather inept about explaining the loss of revenue that has caused debts and deficit levels to rise. Military contract spending has not been adequately restrained. Medicare should be able to negotiate prices. Oil, ethanol, and farm subsidies should be closed, and the tax code should be simplified to eliminate wasteful spending such as mortgage deductions on second homes and those valued over one million dollars. Obama's leadership on all this has been mediocre, and I don't like this "lack of leadership" style.

That said, I have no regrets on the vote, considering the alternative. While I strongly supported John McCain in the 2000 election, I could barely stomach the version of McCain-lite that ran in 2008. He had completely sacrificed his pragmatic understanding of finance and tax policy, and had given in to the mis-guided supply siders in the GOP. And, of course, I am proud to have not voted for any ticket that had Sarah Palin's name attached to it. The same goes for the current crop of candidates who are so naive on the history of tax cuts and their impact on the economy that they continue to ignore decades of history.

So, no regrets. But no firm plans to vote the same way in 2012.

Friday, June 10, 2011

The Reality of Sports Recruiting

With my recent post on Colorado high school sports, and the recent implosion of the Ohio State University football program from recruiting violations, I am wondering about the ethics of sports recruiting - at all levels. Certainly, as someone asked, there's not necessarily anything wrong with schools - even high schools - reaching out to students with athletic talents and encouraging them to attend a specific school. My argument about high school is simply that it is against all state high school athletic codes - and private schools are often criticized for sports success when they can be selective about their students. Thus, I wouldn't necessarily argue that there is anything wrong with recruiting, as long as all schools are allowed to do so.

Should high schools be allowed to contact sixth graders about athletic programs? How about offering athletes preferential treatment or guarantees. Private schools can waive tuition based on financial need - but should they be able to waive tuition just based on athletics - or any talent for that matter. Certainly, some private schools already waive tuition for athletes, as that is a common sanction against private schools - providing illegal tuition assistance. Because public schools can't do that, would it be wrong for them to allow perks such as choice schedules or parking places or access to events or private tutoring or anything really? Would that be OK?

At the college level, people have long talked about paying athletes. An argument is that these young athletes are being exploited by the universities. Of course, the reverse is true. The athletes are exploiting the universities for access and exposure. And, if schools do begin paying athletes, they must give up their tax exempt status, which is based on an "educational mission." Many people they should already give up that status, considering the billions of dollars in TV revenue they already accrue.

It's a good question.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

State Championships in Colorado

What a year for Regis Jesuit High School athletics in Colorado. They won state championships in boys tennis, golf, basketball, swimming, lacrosse, baseball, and a second-place finish in football. Of course, there's no reason to suspect athletic recruiting at this school of 900 students - except they actually admitted illegal recruiting practices to CHSAA last fall. Though Regis has dominated boys swimming for years, they’ve made a dramatic leap to domination in all sports in a very short time. And, it’s not a question of if they are recruiting – it’s a matter of how extensive the violations have been. The coincidence between the recent string of victories and the illegal recruiting admission last fall should not be ignored.

Unfortunately CHSAA has taken no serious action toward private school recruiting, and public schools are understandably troubled by this trend. Last fall, the Florida High School Athletic Association fined Mandarin Christian High School $142,000 - a penalty so harsh it may destroy the school's entire sports program. While it may seem extreme, Florida should be applauded for taking the issue seriously. It’s worth asking how a similar hard-line might change high school playoffs in Colorado.

At one time, Jesuit schools had a reputation for a rigid code of ethics and a devout focus on education. Hopefully, that hasn't changed in Colorado, though recent results certainly cast suspicion. The problem with recruiting is it's difficult to prove - thus, when it's discovered, regulators need to make it hurt. By not doing so, CHSAA is condoning behavior detrimental to high school sports.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Austan Goolsbee and the Truth about Taxes

In news today, Austan Goolsbee, one of President Obama's top economic advisors, is leaving his job at the White House to return to his position as an economist at the University of Chicago. Goolsbee is probably best known for his "White Board" speeches in which he sketched out economic policy of tax cuts - criticizing the GOP plan for continued tax cuts - in a short videotaped speech. Here's a look:

Sadly, far too many Americans are naive to even the simple truths of this two-minute video. And if that sort of thinking continues, the US economy will continue to be mired in the backwaters of ideologically produced debt and deficits.